Design Philosophy (Part 3: Why Design Badly on Purpose?)

i’ve talked about good and bad design, and one of the things that I’ve wanted to point out is that there’s a separation between good design from a purely design-oriented perspective and something good that is designed badly, whether by accident or on purpose. I think it’s easy to stop thinking about good design at the precise moment something works– once it does what it’s intended to, there’s a temptation to say “okay, good design here” and move on. I think that’s an oversimplification, and a potentially harmful one; it leaves us out of looking to continually improve our designs.


That being said, ideal design is not always possible, or even desirable. There are a wide variety of reasons why we might want to intentionally design something less well than we could, or even design it badly on purpose. I want to talk today about a few reasons we might do this.

In Service To A Greater Design

I’ve talked before about friction, and how important it is to a variety of (notably interactive) experiences. Friction is attained by intentionally slowing things down, making them less efficient, less direct, and in general, more frustrating in small ways. Friction in games tends to take the form of one feature being designed inefficiently to make the overall game’s design better; we make decisions about one area to improve the whole.

Outside of games, there are things like speed limiters or manual transmissions on cars. A car with a speed limiter is not as well designed as one without that kind of hardcoded restraint, but those cars help make the roads safer, contributing to the overall design of the transportation network. Similarly, while cars with manual transmissions are more efficient and give the driver finer control, they’re also more difficult to use and require more training to operate– cars without them, while less efficient and offering less control, allow more drivers to use cars without needing to overcome the training hurdle, and allowing a driver to pay attention to a wider variety of things while driving without compromising safety quite as much.


Catering To A Specific Audience

Sometimes, the specific audience for something lends itself to otherwise bad design. Whether it’s a niche crowd that prefers a very specific sort of content, an enthusiast who is either intentionally pursuing older or less refined hobby materials, or a group of hardcore gamers that wants their games excessively punishing and challenging, catering to these groups will require sacrifices on the design side.

In a lot of these cases, people will just be “used to” something, and even if a superior design exists, the transition or new rules are so uncomfortable that the improvement in design gets lost. Inertia is a powerful force, and it’s often a lot easier to continue using what’s already known than attempt to improve a system, even if that system is poorly designed. The saying usually associated with this is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I tend to think that this misses the need to continually self-improve. That having been said, incremental improvement is a solid way to shift, and that often requires intentionally bad design just to ease the overall transition.


Creating Art

Put simply, there is a line where the science of design meets the art of design, and these two facets of the whole tend to clash. People’s reactions to design are often emotional, rather than practical, and an objectively good design may still inspire negative emotions, and vice-versa. Art is doing this intentionally, evoking emotional responses intentionally, and in the service of creating art, design can and must be sacrificed.

Everything science has to say about aerodynamics may make it clear that curved shapes are more capable of flight, but an artist creating a beautiful painting of a flying machine for a culture that despises curved shapes is going to give up the superior curved design in favor of the desired emotional response.

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Not Enough Resources

Sometimes, something needs to just be “good enough”. It’s a reality of pretty much every creative industry, and realistically the vast majority of designs are going to need to settle, rather than get continually refined to near-perfection. It’s just too resource-intensive to pursue ideal design constantly, so corners often need to get cut (or rounded, depending on the tools you’re using).

While a necessity of staying sane in a creative field, I think it’s still important not to conflate “good enough design” with “good design”– settling for poor design is fine, but convincing oneself that the “good enough design” is actually intended and is therefore above criticism or improvement is something of a dangerous trap. It leads us to stop thinking about how to improve, and I’m firmly of the opinion that we should never stop pursing improvement.


To Teach

AI shouldn’t run into obvious traps. Systems shouldn’t obscure parts of themselves or mislead their users as far as their functionality. Games shouldn’t be wildly unbalanced or turn on cheat codes for the player. All of these are useful in the context of teaching people how things work. The AI that runs into a trap shows you that the trap is there, so it isn’t an unfair surprise. Systems may obscure parts of themselves or lie about their capabilities to break themselves down into more manageable chunks. Early levels in games will often make you invincible, or otherwise have an overwhelming advantage, just so that you can learn the controls and the basic functions.

Inflatable water wings make you a less efficient, less capable swimmer, but they’re GREAT for teaching children to swim and generally be comfortable in the water. They’re a temporary measure to be shed later on, like many teaching tools. Once we’re capable of understanding how to swim, we tend to automatically understand why floaties are unnecessary and really just hold us back. Similarly, once we’re capable of seeing the traps, understanding the systems, or competently playing a new game, we no longer need the teaching tools.

Again, it’s important to understand that the teaching tools aren’t indicative of the good design of whatever is being taught, in the same way that putting scaffolding around a building isn’t a good design for the long term, but is useful for short-term construction until the building no longer needs it. Much like things that are in service to a greater design, teaching tools aid the overall work, rather than necessarily being good design in and of themselves. A game that never sheds its tutorial cheats, or whose AI consistently runs into obvious traps gets savaged in reviews; the game needs to shed those constructs because while they’re useful for the short term, they’re bad for the long term.


Design is a really big concept that’s often treated like something much smaller. Part of my inspiration to write this series stemmed from a discussion I had about free-to-play games, that lean heavily on randomness as a skill equalizer / spoiler and are in some cases explicitly built to draw money out of players at the cost of the game’s overall design quality. Candy Crush is a well-loved game but it frequently supplies you with unwinnable boards and carefully constructed design failures to drive you to make purchases. These things aren’t good design for the game, but they serve the product as a whole.

I find the distinction between “good design” and “justifiably bad design” to be a really important, really interesting one, which is why I’ve spent so many words over the last few days talking about it, both here and elsewhere. At a philosophical level, I don’t think being able to justify something makes it right, and that philosophy extends to things other than moral imperatives for me.

Hopefully this was interesting for some folks. Thanks for reading!

Design Philosophy (Part 2: Why is there Bad Design?)

I made an attempt yesterday to define “good design”. By extension, I tend to think that things that don’t fit the definition fall somewhere on the spectrum, where some omissions might make “great design” merely “okay design” or “passable design” and flagrant violations would start to fall into the realm of “bad design”.


Some things are badly designed. This can be a result of omission or ignorance or error on the part of the designer, or it can be intentional. What I want to look at a bit more today is why some things are designed badly. Something can be designed badly and still be “good” on the whole, and it’s important to remember that good design isn’t the end-all-be-all, nor is something good necessarily well-designed. Design isn’t the only consideration in the creation of something, but I think it’s important to be able to tell the difference between a good thing with good design and a good thing with bad design.

So, definition of good design again:

Good design is when the thing in question accomplishes what is desired in an efficient, reliable, intuitive, thorough, positive, and inspiring way without contradicting its own goals, being dishonest or misleading, or being unnecessarily obtrusive or overwrought.

Let’s take an easy example: air travel. Getting on planes is inefficient and a generally frustrating experience. It contradicts its own goals of getting people from place to place effectively, it’s often misleading, and it’s certainly obtrusive.


The easy answer, and the one you hear a lot from frustrated passengers at airports, is “because the people running things are idiots”. This is rarely actually the case. A process that huge and with that many people involved that runs for decades does not continue that way because the people in charge aren’t good at their jobs. Air travel is specifically designed to be unpleasant in a variety of annoying but not enraging ways. It is intentionally designed badly.


Again, why?

I’ve talked elsewhere about follow-the-money problems, and air travel is a pretty clear one. Most of the additional purchases you can make beyond simply buying your ticket involve removing the various annoyances that you have to put up with. The markup on these is huge, and involves relatively low overhead for the airline. Loading the plane is inefficient and obtrusive, and so you can pay money to get on sooner, ensuring that you don’t have to deal with the annoyances of waiting in line or worrying over whether you’ll have a place to put your bag. Seats get increasingly uncomfortable to encourage you to upgrade your seat to something a bit more comfortable. Sitting closer to the front of the plane means you get off sooner, and are more likely to get your connecting flight. All of this is *designed*.

There are other considerations as well. You can board earlier if you check in ahead of time on most airlines. This is another designed thing– the airlines don’t want no-shows, so they incentivize you to check in early, so they have an accurate headcount and no empty seats on the flight. If you help them get an accurate headcount sooner, they will remove a layer or two of annoyances from your trip.

So, that’s how we get bad design in things we don’t like. What about bad design in things we do like?

Since I was already talking about flying, it’s time for me to get controversial. World of Warcraft has flying mounts. They effectively function like cheat codes– you press a button and you can fly like a GM does. Because the flight mechanics are very simple and offer no opportunity for gameplay (there’s no combat in the sky), flight simply allows you to go up in the air and bypass whatever you care to, skipping mobs and obstacles to get to a particular goal. It’s probably the single most damaging thing to WoW’s gameplay that they’ve ever done, and it’s extremely telling that they “take it away” for every new expansion. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this happens– with flight enabled all the time, there’s very little game to play, just fly down, click, fly up.


“But players love it!” you say. “I love it! Don’t tell me flight in WoW is bad design when I’m having so much fun with it!”

Here’s where it gets interesting. WoW’s flight model is bad design– it contradicts the goal of players playing the game instead of bypassing it, it creates a situation in which you’re (unintuitively) better off not playing the game than playing it, it misleads players into thinking the ground game is boring (it is, in fact, the only game), and it forces the rest of the game to be significantly overwrought just to accommodate flight. As above, it’s a cheat code, there’s little to no skill involved in flying, there’s no associated gameplay, it’s effectively an invincibility code and terrain hack all in one, with a pretty wrapper and nice effects.

It is, however, fun. Cheating is fun. Create an item that can be used to instantly kill any target and everyone would flock to it. In Destiny, the “loot caves” were immensely popular. Cheating is even more fun if it’s apparently sanctioned by the game. How can flight be cheating if it’s something the designers put in there? Well, everyone makes mistakes. Consider the outcry when Destiny shut down its loot caves, how angry players were. Imagine that multiplied ten thousandfold, if Blizzard were to come out and say “hey folks, you know what, flight was a mistake and we’re removing it to make the game better”. Pandora’s box is open, there’s no going back, even if in every interview where it comes up Blizzard devs all but say outright that flight was a terrible mistake that they wish they’d never put in the game.

I mentioned that good design inspires later design. It’s very, very telling that nearly no major MMO has implemented WoW-style flying mounts, with the exception of FFXIV (which operates on a slightly different content model anyway). Other games have included flight, but it’s been more limited, and generally included more gameplay. WoW’s flight didn’t inspire; it was a cautionary tale.

But, it’s fun, so it stays. For some people, WoW is a better game for including this feature; good design or no. It trades good design and the game’s mechanical integrity for player satisfaction.


Another, more common example of bad design in WoW, and one that they changed: the old talent trees. These were badly designed because they were unintuitive, not very thorough (depending on the class), EXTREMELY misleading and dishonest, and very much overwrought. Talent trees presented a set of options that the game portrayed as equally good, when the reality was that there was a “right answer” and a whole lot of pitfalls along the way. For a long time, players and designers alike considered this “good design”, as being able to separate the wheat from the chaff was considered a skill.

The problem was, the optimal builds were posted online and if you weren’t following one of those, you were probably playing badly, or at the very least noticeably sub-optimally. The choices were illusions, there was a right answer and then a lot of mistakes, not a genuine series of choices. If the talent trees had been permanent and unalterable (as similar things were in earlier games), the problem would have been exposed FAR sooner. MMOs preceding WoW often had extensive “build planners”, so you could figure out what permanent choice you made as you levelled up and didn’t ruin your character by making an incorrect choice. Also bad design, and while WoW’s talents improved upon it, it still only went from “appalling” to “not great”.

But, all of that being said, up until the point Blizzard specifically came forward and said their talent system was bad design and they were removing and replacing it entirely, players would argue that it was a demonstration of skill, a sign of knowledge and expertise, and a way of separating the “good players” from those players who foolishly thought that because a game presented them with apparently equivalent choices that they could feel comfortable picking any of them.

I’m picking on WoW here, but a lot of games fail at this. They present a bunch of choices with similar costs or requirements, but the efficacy of those choices is wildly uneven. Sometimes games will be honest with you and say that this choice will make the game harder; more often they do not.


These last two were good (or well-loved) things designed badly by mistake. What about something designed badly on purpose that we like?

It’s hard to find good examples of this, because things that we like tend to cloud our vision as far as good design goes. Microtransaction games are extremely popular, and often sacrifice good gameplay design in order to squeeze more money out of players. The ones that do this more acceptably are largely just better at hiding it, though they’re still making the same design sacrifices.

I want to look a bit more into why we might design something badly on purpose in the next part of this.


Design Philosophy (Part 1: What is “Good Design”?)

Design is important. Not just in games, but in everything. Design is how we make whatever is happening in our minds into reality, and it is also how we consciously improve. It’s an important part of things being functional, of things working, and of things being fixable when broken. It helps things work and it helps us understand what’s wrong when things don’t work. Design is important, and because of this, good design is inherently worth pursuing, and bad design something to be avoided.

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But it’s not enough just to say that something needs to be designed well. If we don’t know what good design is, we can’t recognize it. Good design is not simply “does [thing] do what it was intended it to do”, because there are reasons to intentionally design something badly. It’s worth recognizing the difference between something that is designed well and something that is intentionally designed badly, because they’re ultimately very different things. So, what is good design? Here’s an attempt at a general statement:

Good design is when the thing in question accomplishes what is desired in an efficient, reliable, intuitive, thorough, positive, and inspiring way without contradicting its own goals, being dishonest or misleading, or being unnecessarily obtrusive or overwrought.

It’s a mouthful; I’ll break it down:

  • Good design accomplishes what is desired.
    • This is pretty simple. If an gorgeously artistic spoon does not hold liquid, it is not a well-designed spoon, no matter how pretty it is.
  • Good design is efficient.
    • Efficiency is a big part of what separates “design” from “good design”. A user interface that requires you to navigate fifteen layers of menus to find what you’re looking for is a design, but a UI that is more carefully arranged or predictive is a superior design, because it helps you get to what you’re looking for quickly.
  • Good design is reliable.
    • It’s not enough that a designed thing should accomplish its goal. It needs to be able to do so repeatedly, in such a way that it can be trusted. A game might be fun, but if it crashes constantly or behaves erratically, that is a problem.
  • Good design is intuitive.
    • Watch a child pick up Legos for the first time. They fit together in an obvious way, pegs up, and as you add more pieces the complexity level rises, but each new piece works off of the same principles introduced already. Similarly, certain doors that open only one way have a horizontal “push” bar across the width of the door, and a vertical “pull” handle on the far edge. These make it obvious how to interact with the door, because the horizontal bar is easy to push, and the vertical handle is situated to provide maximum leverage for pulling. Even without signage, it is clear whether one needs to push or pull the door.
  • Good design is thorough.
    • It’s important to address the various ways in which a thing can be used. A game that provides features for deaf or colorblind players is naturally better designed. An automatic door that only triggers from one side doesn’t take into account people approaching it from unexpected directions.
  • Good design is positive.
    • What I mean by this is that the experience of interacting with something should uplift and please the user. A well-designed set of controls is not only usable, but a joy to use; the new PS4 controller is comfortable and pleasing just to hold and use, compared to the original Xbox controller that was equally functional, but not satisfying or pleasing to hold for most players.
  • Good design is inspiring.
    • By this I mean that it sets a standard for future design. The iPod’s interface had a massive impact on mobile device interfaces, inspiring the iOS interface which in turn has had a huge impact on other mobile devices. Compare the experience of the system interface on a Nintendo DS with the system interface of an iPhone; one you want to see everywhere, the other feels dated and clunky.
  • Good design does not contradict its own goals.
    • A fairly obvious one that tends to only come up with more complex designs. Altering a business process with the goal of saving money is not a good design if it requires enough additional overhead to run that it obliterates the money savings. More controversially, a diet plan that rewards good behavior with “cheat days” in which the good behavior can be eliminated on the “cheat day” is poorly designed.
  • Good design is neither dishonest or misleading.
    • If a design suggests that a choice you may choose to make is just as valid as another choice, then both choices should be equally viable in practice. Similarly, a design should be clear about its own capabilities and neither suggest functionality that it lacks nor obscure functionality that it has.
  • Good design is neither obtrusive nor overwrought.
    • Rube Goldberg machines are amusing, but are intentionally inefficient, take up a lot of unnecessary space, and use a lot of moving parts (with a lot of potential failure points) to accomplish something often very simple. They’re fun, but (intentionally) not good design. Similarly, a door with a recording that shouted “PUSH” or “PULL” depending on which side of it you were on would be obtrusive.

These things, together, set a high bar for good design. Good design is hard, and it’s much rarer than you might expect, especially because so much research has been done to figure out what makes good design, both from a mathematical and from a psychological standpoint. A lot of things fall shy of the mark, and I think it’s worthwhile and sometimes even important to understand the difference between poor execution and poor design.

Tomorrow I’m going to look into that a bit more; if we know what makes for GOOD design, why do we have BAD design? What would motivate us to create bad design intentionally, and why does that happen?

Board Games

I have a weird relationship with board games. I recently played a number of them over the holidays with friends and family, and I was reminded of how much fun I can have with them, when played casually and as an accompaniment to conversation, rather than a primary focus. That having been said, however, I don’t often play board games, and it took me jumping back into Starcraft 2 to really think about and understand why.


I jumped back into Starcraft 2 for the Legacy of the Void campaign, playing through the Zerg campaign in order to catch up with the story. I really enjoy the SC2 campaigns, because they do some interesting RPG things as you progress, and they showcase a lot of interesting mechanics that don’t come up in regular, standard matches. Having played through the campaigns, and feeling better about my Starcraft skills, I jumped into some multiplayer and vs-AI matches to try to extend the fun.

I played about ten or fifteen matches, total, before getting bored. I still know Protoss openings, and it didn’t take long for me to figure out how to adapt them to the new units in the expansion. What bored me was that every opening was the same, dominant strategies were already known and I either used them or lost, and there wasn’t really any room for creativity, because the first steps of each match were all very similar. If I were playing against players who weren’t as skilled as I was, I could feel free to experiment more, but because both the matchmaking and the AI tune themselves to keep up with my skill, I basically have to play at the top of my game all the time. I have to play competitively or I lose, generally badly enough to not have any idea if the strategy I was employing would have even worked, had I executed it more adeptly.


This brings me back to board games. I have a number of friends who are extremely competitive board gamers, and playing games with them tends to be an extremely one-sided affair. It’s either a game I know well, like Agricola, or City of Thieves, or Galaxy trucker, or it’s a game I don’t know at all, or have played maybe once or twice. If it’s a game I know well, I basically don’t get to experiment because I have to play at the top of my game and focus hugely on competitive strategies. If it’s a game I don’t know, I lose. Often, in a game like Through The Ages or Race for the Galaxy, I can lose HOURS before I realize I’ve lost.

As a result, I tend to only really enjoy cooperative games, because unequal skill or experience doesn’t make the game one-sided. There are precious few board games I’ve seen where the experienced player won’t simply dominate a new player; it takes a few games before a new player can even begin to hold their own, much less try something creative. Similarly few board games offer a “catch-up” mechanic for players who fall behind– there is a reason why Mariokart is so popular a party game.


On the other hand, I play minis games, where the experienced player tends to dominate the new player, where catch-up mechanics rarely exist, and where they’re purely competitive. It took me a bit to understand why I like competitive minis games, and why I don’t like competitive board games. It’s all in the opening moves. In a minis game, there’s a strategic layer that I take part in before the game even starts, where I pick my list and deploy it. The terrain, the starting player, etc are all akin to the randomization most board games have, but beyond that I have a level of creativity that applies before I even start playing, and that can be different, sometimes vastly so, from game to game.

It’s worth noting that I tend to check out of minis games that boil down to dominant strategies with same-y openings. I stick with Infinity because I can continually come up with different lists doing different things, and the variance in effectiveness between them is mostly determined by my skill, not the list itself. Conversely, I’d reached a point in Warmachine where I was playing lists that did virtually the same exact thing for the first turn of every game, which got boring quickly. Similarly, without the opportunity for strategy-layer customization prior to a game starting, I’m playing purely tactics in a board game, playing out the relatively similar first turns and reacting to the changing game state.


I should pause a moment to describe the differences, as I see them, between strategy and tactics. This could be a post by itself (and might well be, later), but essentially, strategy is the planning you do before you take actions, and tactics are the actions you take in response to what’s happening in front of you. Nearly every board game is a purely tactical game– you don’t get to make decisions prior to the game starting; indeed, randomization often specifically blocks you from doing this. A game like Galaxy Trucker is actually predicated on you being unable to strategize effectively– you have to build a ship with what you can grab, rather than meticulously planning it out.

Pure tactics, as it turns out, kind of bore me. I tend to feel like purely tactical board games can devolve quickly into simply taking the optimal action at every juncture, and while this is a fairly complex web in most cases, it’s still a very solvable one. While it may take a lot of memorization and understanding of game mechanics to know what the optimal actions are, once you know them they aren’t going to change. With the strategic layer added in, it’s often possible to change your situation to the point where optimal actions (and sometimes the junctures themselves) may change, and I find that a lot more compelling.


That having been said, I do find myself returning to board games that are played casually, or cooperatively. I particularly like games that defy being played more than casually– Codenames is a great example of a game like this, that’s technically a competitive team game but doesn’t have optimal strategies other than “be good at communication”. I don’t mind that there’s no strategic layer, because the competitive part of it is really just ornamental. Similarly, games like Shadowrun: Crossfire and Eldritch Horror aren’t heavily affected by one player being more experienced than the others (unlike, say, Battlestar Galactica, where one or two out-of-band players can dominate or destroy the experience).

On the whole, I’m somewhat reticent to jump into board games with friends I know are competitive. I have an automatic flinch reaction to the sentence “Hey, want to play [board game] with me? It’s one of my favorites!” because in a lot of cases I know that what is going to happen is I’m going to lose and, like in Starcraft, lose badly enough that I’ll have no idea if my strategy might have worked if executed well. Losing that badly– badly enough to learn next to nothing– doesn’t endear me to the game. Because I have no knobs to turn or levers to pull before the game starts, jumping back into that game just restarts the chain of optimal decision points, and maybe I’ll make the right ones this time.

Tam Tries: Kingdom

A friend of mine recommended Kingdom to me, and another sent me a copy of it, so I wound up putting some time into it over the break. It’s a 2D sidescrolling strategy game where you play as a ruler who can collect money and drive construction, and you’re trying to build your kingdom in the wilderness.


It’s one part Terraria/Starbound, one part Majesty (did anyone besides me play that game?)– essentially, you don’t have any direct influence and act entirely through your subjects. Your subjects can be found at camps and lured into joining you with money. Money comes from archers, who hunt game, and farmers, who tend crops. It appears as coins on the ground which you can pick up, and your subjects will pick them up themselves if you’re not around and hand them over if they see you.

Money is used to equip your subjects– you can spend money to make a tool or weapon and unequipped subjects will gravitate towards it and pick it up. It can also be used to build– upgrades, walls, farms, watchtowers, and so on. These will be staffed by appropriately-equipped subjects, and they’re built by builders, which is another tool type.

Opposing your progress is the Greed, bandits and monsters who continually harry your kingdom from the edges. They look to steal your money and tools, and will attack you and your subjects to get them. As the ruler, you have a crown, and if you’re hit and have no money to drop, your crown will get knocked off– if the Greed steals it or it’s otherwise destroyed, you’re done.


The Greed comes at night, and in the night all of your subjects will rest and, with the exception of Builders (who will toil through the night heedless of the danger), will sit inside the borders of your kingdom– whatever the outermost wall is. From there, they’ll shoot at and defend your kingdom from the Greed.

Success is about expanding your kingdom while keeping yourself safe from the ever-escalating attacks from the Greed. Overextend and you’ll find yourself spread too thin to fend off the Greed, turtle up too much and you’ll be overrun. It’s important to venture beyond the borders of your kingdom, both to expand and to find important things to help your growth.

The whole game is a really interesting concept, but I ultimately found it somewhat frustrating. It ramps up in difficulty rather quickly if you’re not on top of things, and there are a number of mistakes you can make that will cripple you while seeming like sound decisions. I’ve talked about degenerative strategies before, and Kingdom suffers hugely from them– a lot of the things you can do or build are simply bad choices that you should never make, and since there’s no way to destroy buildings or manually command your units, you can find yourself stuck without realizing it.


As an example of this, one of the structures you can build is the archer tower. If conveniently located, archers in an archer tower can shoot down at enemies over walls easily and more accurately, helping hold the line. Sounds great, except that your line is always moving, and archer towers don’t. Furthermore, archers won’t leave archer towers. As a result, you can easily get into a situation where your entire defensive force is spread thin, and a concentrated attack will cut a swathe through your entire kingdom where a focused defense would have kept everything safe. I rarely make more than two or three archer towers total in a winning game, usually just to hold against particularly nasty waves. Otherwise, massed archers handle themselves just fine.

In a similar vein, there’s a wandering merchant who, for four gold, will fill up one of your tools (to four); tools being bows to make archers, hammers to make builders, or scythes to make farmers. Considering that putting tools in costs 2-5 gold each, this seems like a good deal, up until you realize that you want a very tight control over the number of builders and farmers you have, and since both of those are likely to get picked up before bows, and you usually want more archers than anything else, that merchant is doing you no favors unless he randomly gives you bows. Again, in games I win, I basically never use the merchant.


I understand that Kingdom is trying to be an iterative game, where you play it over and over and make better decisions each time. I theoretically like that about it, except that as I’ve gotten better at the game, I’ve mostly realized that the best strategy is the least interesting one and uses as few of the game’s mechanics as possible. I find this frustrating, because it’s already a fairly shallow game as far as complexity– having winning strategies use even fewer of the game’s limited mechanics is somewhat irritating.

That all having been said, it’s a game I had a good bit of fun with until “solving” it, and it’s a game I’m glad I picked up. It’s honestly probably worth it just for the pixel-art style and the music, which are both rather nice.


Over the rest of the year I’m going to be traveling, with limited access and time for posts. As a result (and to not stress myself out over the holidays with the blog), I’m going to be on hiatus until the new year.

I hope everyone has a good close to 2015, and a happy set of holidays. I’ll be back in the new year, recharged and with more nonsense gaming blather for your feeds.

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The Best Games of All Time (Part 7: Why Didn’t I Include…)

In the last week of research and writing about various games to put together my list of “The Best Games of All Time”, there are a number of game types and genres that I didn’t include much of, if any. In the same way that I talked about specific games that didn’t quite make the cut, I also wanted to talk about sections of the gaming medium that didn’t quite make it either.

If you’ve looked at the previous list, and wondered “why didn’t Tam include…”, read on.

Racing/Sports Games

Racing and sports games have a long history in video games. They’re some of the first games we made, and we make LOTS of them. Both genres are built upon slow, steady iteration, taking the boundaries set by predecessors and gently nudging them outward, but rarely if ever pushing well past them. innovations are subtle, small things: enhancements to UI, control sensitivity upgrades, improved physics, better customization. For a lot of people, the “best” racing or sports game is the one that got them into the genre; individual years blur together.

Additionally, racing games diverged very early on between the “arcade” racer and the “simulation” racer, and the choice between the two has long since been a matter of taste. With two fairly divergent schools of design that nonetheless heavily affect one another, slow but steady iteration, and the blurriness between the various iterations, I don’t know that I could pick out games that really stand out.

Classic Adventure Games

I’m talking here mostly about the point-and-click puzzle story games– the ones made by Lucasarts, Dynamix, Sierra, or a variety of other studios. So many of these kinds of games came out and iterated on each other so rapidly that it’s hard to establish a starting point or connecting threads, particularly once you reach back into text adventures or forward into action-adventure games. I think these games are important, but I also think they’re important as a whole, not individually. I don’t think it’s possible to pick out King’s Quest, or Full Throttle, or Day of the Tentacle, or Sam and Max, or Kyrandia, or Quest for Glory, or Police Quest as a particular stand-out.

For myself, I can come up with compelling arguments for pretty much any of that previous list, but it’s questionable how relevant any of them still are. We’re starting to see a resurgence of adventure games– Telltale’s games, Broken Age, Dreamfall Chapters, and others, but many of them define themselves by how far removed they are from the old style of point-and-click.

BBS Games

The predecessor to the modern MMO, BBS games and the MUDS/MUSHes (and eventually MMOs) they evolved into are certainly notable in gaming history. Like some of the above categories, however, there were a lot of them released in a very short period of time, with very similar feature sets. While popular for a time, very few of them endured beyond dedicated hobbyists, and most of them are notable only because they were online with other people, but did very little else well in the context of games as a whole, especially for their time. Perhaps the most notable one would be DIKUMUD, just due to its lasting influence on role-based games, but frankly even that I have a hard time holding up compared to its contemporaries.

Certainly important games, but difficult to claim as Best Games Ever.

Real-Time Strategy

Command and Conquer or _____craft? The two represent very different philosophies for RTS games, and while they both sit fairly high in terms of quality, they also tend to be somewhat monofocused. Given my own criteria, the vast majority of RTS games don’t make the cut, with Starcraft being one of the only notable exceptions, though Warcraft 3 developed the now popular concept of the “hero” unit. On top of that, RTSes as a genre have been sputtering out in a lot of cases, particularly with the rise of e-sports and MOBAs.

The RTS is such a divergent design model that it’s done relatively little to affect things outside itself, and there are very few serious stand-outs.

Shmups/Bullet Hell Shooters

This is another genre like RTSes, that has kind of absorbed into itself and doesn’t really cross-pollinate that much. It’s kind of an evolutionary offshoot that has its own subset of games but rarely breaks into the overall gaming consciousness nor really affects the medium as a whole a lot. There are many great games that fall under this umbrella, but it’s hard for me to recommend any of them as a “Best Game of All Time”.


I use this term to describe games like Metal Slug, (older) Ninja Gaiden, Streets of Rage, Contra, Battletoads, and a variety of TMNT games, many of which appeared first on arcades. Other than people playing them a whole lot, though, most of these were overshadowed by the real stand-outs of the 16-bit era, and especially the arcade ones were very, very similar to one another with only nominally different skins. Super Mario, Castlevania, Metroid, Sonic 2 and Mega Man fairly adequately cover all of the ground that these games cover (exception: co-op arcade which was notable and early, but about the only thing some of these games did), but there’s not a lot of variance or innovation. I have a lot of fond memories of these games, but I can’t exactly put any of them up on a pedestal; they were largely kind of shallow even for their time.

Still-Living PC Games

There are a small number of games that have stayed alive and kicking through PC hobbyists for a long time. I’m thinking of MMOs that have been resurrected by fans, popular classic shooters like Quake 3, and other snapshots of particular times in gaming history that have been preserved. While a lot of these have been ported multiple times and even still have tournaments every year, they’re also followed by pretty small audiences that are very insular. There’s a big difference between a game that’s relevant today because a small group of hobbyists has kept it alive and a game that is relevant today because new games are still copying its design.

Mobile Games


There are a ton of mobile games. It’s still a very new market, and it’s really hard to pick out stand-outs, especially considering how far they’ve come in the last five years. You’ll note that there were very few early home console games on my list– much like early home console games and early arcade games, early mobile games are exploratory forays into the medium, but not terribly refined yet. Per my own criteria, simply being the first to do something doesn’t make a game uniquely notable, and I feel like we haven’t had quite enough maturation in mobile games to start pulling out true stand-outs.

I have absolutely no doubt that we’ll get there, though.

Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs)

This one rode a line for me. Technically, League of Legends was released in 2009 and available on multiple platforms and is therefore eligible for the list. What I don’t know is whether or not MOBAs are a briefly entertaining offshoot of RTSes, like skateboarding games that were huge for several years and then nearly all evaporated, or if they’re a new mainstay of gaming. It’s largely too early to tell, and it’s uncertain whether League of Legends will retain its stranglehold or whether DOTA2 will pull ahead. Both represent very different philosophies, and I don’t think any of the stand-outs have been around long enough to really claim Best Game Ever status, and the genre’s progenitor, the original DOTA, is frankly overshadowed by its successors.

The Best Games of All Time (Part 6: Honorable Mentions)

Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:

  1. Enduring Classics
  2. Medium Changers
  3. Genre Pinnacles
  4. Right Place, Right Time
  5. Honorable Mentions
  6. Why Didn’t I Include…

The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.

There are a number of games that didn’t quite make my list for one reason or another, but are either oft-expected inclusions or are worth mentioning for various reasons. I waffled on including these, and while I ultimately didn’t, they’re largely excellent games that deserve recognition. This is the list that I suspect people will be mad about, and know that I waffled on pretty much all of these before ultimately deciding against their inclusion.

Final Fantasy VI

Boy, did I go back and forth on this one. It introduced the ensemble cast, it showed a villain with a complete character arc. It offered highs and lows, and it’s a finely crafted game. What kept it off the list was criteria #6. The game was excellent for its time, but hasn’t aged well. Its pacing is all over the place, making it hard for its strongest suit — its narrative — to stand up to more modern games with a higher caliber of writing. While it pioneered several interesting ideas (most notably the ensemble cast and no “true” main character), it set a drumbeat that, for the most part, other games have not marched to, or seen much success if they’ve tried.

We may see a resurgence in the kinds of ideas that FF6 pushed forward, but outside of a few PS1 era games (SaGa Frontier, for example), it hasn’t really influenced much beyond itself, and doesn’t quite hit the heights or the long-term relevance of its biggest Genre Pinnacle competitor: Chrono Trigger.

Metal Gear Solid

MGS is very, very similar to FF6 in terms of what prevented its inclusion. It’s still a great game, and it continues to fuel a beloved series, but it marches to the beat of its own drum in many ways, with a lot of its innovations not really making a splash in other parts of the gaming sphere. It does a lot of things that only it can get away with, because they wouldn’t be appropriate or sensical in other games. It’s also worked very hard to become almost entirely inaccessible from the outside, with in-jokes and nonsensical storytelling elements that you either “get” or don’t, but either way it rarely bothers to explain them.

That having been said, it’s still a very good game with some very compelling moments, it just forged a path that the rest of the medium didn’t really follow, and as time has passed, it’s pulled more and more from other games than it has come up with ideas that other games then take.

Resident Evil 2

A survival horror game where limited resources and slow-paced controls help amp up the fear. This sort of third-person horror game dropped off fairly dramatically in popularity as controls got more and more refined, because they largely became third person action games against monsters with jump-scares, rather than legitimately provoking fear and dread. Like the previous two, a lot of the things in Resident Evil died as controls got more precise and more responsive; the fear factor in a lot of modern horror games comes from a limited viewpoint, not limited controls.

That having been said, Resident Evil 2 offered some genuinely terrifying moments and had some interesting, arguably well-executed ideas about control limitations as a mechanic, just none that really took off.

Shadow of the Colossus

SotC nearly redefined the boss battle. It was a game almost entirely composed of just boss battles, and it was visually astounding and occasionally very moving. It had compelling controls and exciting gameplay, offering forms of climbing and traversal gameplay years before Assassin’s Creed would bring parkour into cities. Its enormous bosses were fought not by hitting their legs until an HP bar went away, but by climbing atop them and avoiding their attempts to shake you off until you could reach their weak point and strike.

Unfortunately, God of War beat it to market, and the visceral action with quick-time-event driven boss battles became popular instead of SotC’s boss mechanics.

Beyond Good and Evil

It pains me, but I can’t *quite* give BG&E a spot on the list. It’s a brilliant game, with one of the best female protagonists ever, a lot of compelling non-violent and stealth-driven gameplay, and a rich, compelling narrative. When I played it as it first came out, I expected that I’d see a lot more games that focused on non-violent, more nuanced gameplay, where victory is achieved through something other than “hit everyone bad until they stop moving”.

Sadly, BG&E is a massively underappreciated game, and hasn’t quite gotten the cachet to influence the medium as a whole. It was, I think, ahead of its time just enough to keep it from being an instant classic. Its sequel has been in development hell for quite a while now, and while I’d like to hope we’ll see it, I’m not convinced we will.

The Best Games of All Time (Part 5: Right Place, Right Time)

Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:

  1. Enduring Classics
  2. Medium Changers
  3. Genre Pinnacles
  4. Right Place, Right Time
  5. Honorable Mentions
  6. Why Didn’t I Include…

The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.

Today it’s the games that I call “Right Place, Right Time”. These games were released in such a way, at a particular point in the medium’s history, that they’ve left an unmistakable mark. Some of them, released slightly later, may not have made this list, others probably still would have, but they’re all most notable not necessarily for doing what no one else had thought of, but for doing it in the right way at the right time to make a huge splash. The biggest one of these will be no surprise:


First-person shooters had stories and puzzles before Half-Life. Modding games was a thing with its own community before Half-Life. These weren’t necessarily new concepts when Half-Life was launched, but Half-Life propelled them into the forefront. The wide spread of Duke Nukem 3D, Doom, and Quake mods paled in the face of the total conversions that Half-Life enabled. Counter-Strike, a hugely significant game likely worthy of inclusion in this list in its own right, started life as a mod for Half-Life. Making, acquiring, and using mods became highly accessible as the Internet spun up, and the impact of Half-Life on virtually every part of PC gaming is undeniable.

Furthermore, Half-Life introduced the concept of the active cutscene, where instead of taking you out of the game into a pre-rendered sequence, the game would simply have things happen that you could see but not necessarily reach, and allow you to keep full control of your character. The game is littered with these, big and small, including an extremely memorable opening credits sequence involving you, as Gordon Freeman, heading into Black Mesa for your first day of work. This kind of storytelling device is so common now it’s hard to imagine that it had even needed to be “invented”, yet it’s largely thanks to Half-Life that we see it in so many places.

Halo: Combat Evolved

Speaking of hugely influential shooters, it’s very difficult to talk about FPSes without referring to Halo. Prior to Halo, FPSes tended to have trickles of enemies, small numbers in small rooms slowly whittling away at your health, and obvious tells for boss fights coming right after a room full of health and other powerups. It gave the genre a somewhat predictable cadence, and you often knew what to expect. Halo changed the face of encounter design hugely, pulling regenerative shields from earlier games and putting them to use as a “breather” mechanic. Now, rather than a trickle, every encounter could be a challenging and satisfying fight for your life, and bosses could be true surprises. By limiting the weapons you could carry, Halo diversified its encounters even more, simply by continually altering the tools you had to approach them.

On top of this, Halo was one of the first big console multiplayer games, and the first to leave an indelible mark on console gaming culture. With Halo, multiplayer console gaming could go beyond the living room, offering a spectrum of opponents far more varied than one could necessarily get locally.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Continuing in the line of significant first-person shooters, the next major shooter to leave a huge mark was Modern Warfare. Shortly after Halo, shooters became dominated by a slew of WW2-era games, playing out the same battles in the same locations with the same groups repeatedly, remaining popular enough to keep generating sequels but never quite standing out. Modern Warfare changed a lot of that, moving into the near-future and making the conflict more real and present, and much less abstract than the WW2 games had become for the majority of their players, nearly all of whom were too young to see WW2 as much more than an abstract concept.

Modern Warfare offered a surprising amount of variety in its campaign, which had a strong story and a lot of high-quality moments liberaly spread throughout. It provided a narrative in a military shooter beyond “win this war”, and added depth and nuance that hadn’t been seen previously. It has one of the most powerful single moments in game storytelling, and does it with virtually no words.

Chrono Trigger

From shooters to RPGs. Chrono Trigger is a classic, and a superb game in its own right, but it’s immensely notable for the huge variety of things it introduced to the genre, and games in general. It provided narrative and mechanical firsts like its selection of unique, interesting characters and the ability for your party composition to enable combos and other powerful moves, as well as previously-unknown concepts like non-random encounters that took place in the actual parts of the game you were in, no screen transition, nothing.

However, what really sets Chrono Trigger apart are its big ideas. Other games had multiple endings before Chrono Trigger, but they were relatively unimportant, and rarely represented a different path to beating the game. Chrono Trigger allowed you to beat the game in a huge variety of ways, at a surprising variety of times, and all of these would cause the game to play out differently, and not all of them were nice. You could “beat” Chrono Trigger and not feel like you’d won. Furthermore, Chrono Trigger allowed you to go back and try again, with New Game Plus, where you could take what you’d learned and some of the spoils of your adventures into a new game, hoping to do better this time. NG+ is now a staple in RPGs and many other games, and it all started with Chrono Trigger.

Final Fantasy VII

Time for me to start a fight. Final Fantasy VII is the only Final Fantasy game to make this list. Many other FF games are excellent, but none are as hugely influential as Final Fantasy VII. As the series’ foray into 3D, and absolutely gorgeous at the time, one of the best villains in video games, and a cast of memorable, complex characters, not to mention a game world that suggests it’s much bigger than what you see in the game itself (reinforced by the game’s variety of spinoffs, all telling stories of different parts of that world), Final Fantasy 7 is an incredibly significant game.

Furthermore, it pushed JRPGs into 3D in a big way, one of the first significant moves forward for a very static genre, and quite possibly the only notable one of that generation. It brought a lot of players into the genre who hadn’t seen it before and weren’t wowed by 16-bit sprites, and made a lot of games relevant that otherwise might well have vanished into the ether during the early days of 3D. While other RPGs may have appeared instead of FF7, given time, its release was timely and extremely important, bringing a gorgeous, complex RPG into the public eye right as games started to go more mainstream and draw more people’s attention.


World of Warcraft is the game that locked down and defined the MMO genre. Everquest is the MMO that taught us how awesome MMO worlds could really be. Everquest was a social game, one of the first of its kind, where you couldn’t succeed without help and you could get just as far by knowing people in the game as knowing things about the game. Everquest was a huge, expansive world that was extremely dangerous and, by today’s standards, incredibly punitive. These things together made it a place where, by and large, players hated the world, and pushed back against it, rather than hating each other and pushing each other around over an easy world.

It was possible to meet new people every time you logged into Everquest, because the really big guilds and the clique-mentality of smaller guilds hadn’t fully formed yet. Everquest was a fiercely social game in an era when games (and gamers) were criticized for being antisocial, and it gave rise to friendships and meetings that could previously never have happened.

Mass Effect (series)

For a long time, the Action-RPG was an awkward cousin to the more standard RPGs. Real-time combat with the endless numbers of possible options simply wasn’t possible or feasible, and games tended towards “more spells and more attacks” rather than individually more interesting ones. Action-RPGs tended to be simpler, and less involved than their more established counterparts, and outside of Zelda games and Elder Scrolls, often not very good.

Mass Effect carved a niche out by blending RPG mechanics and shooter mechanics, launching a more “hard” sci-fi space RPG at a time when swords-and-sorcery made up the overwhelming majority of RPGs. It brought dialogue forward from a single “right” answer and several incorrect/informational choices, and saved a ton of what you’d done from game to game. Most of these things had appeared individually before Mass Effect, but the ME series was the first to bring them all together in a coherent, fully functional and complete way. It offered polish and high production values, and while none of the games in the series are individually quite ‘there’ for this list, the series as a whole deserves a mention.

Assassin’s Creed II

Most game series make this list as a whole group. Assassin’s Creed II stands on its own. Its predecessor was promising, but somewhat repetitive and tech-demo-feeling; AC2 was an amazing jump forward, and set up plots, metaplots, game mechanics, and characters that the series would struggle to make as compelling in later games as they were in AC2. The game delivered on the promises of its predecessor and set up the edges of a fascinating world. Stealth was interesting, and different from the light/dark systems used previously. Whereas the first only asked you to stealth occasionally, AC2 introduced more and more enemies who could simply overwhelm you, a staple for stealth games. AC2 is still a largely “stealth-lite” game, but it has enough varied systems and interesting mechanics from the first to really earn a spot, and while it didn’t invent the concept of parkour gameplay, it perfected it in a way that its predecessor and its contemporaries never quite managed.